Relationship Between Sunnis and Shiites

Book Review
By Abdul-Fattah Maghawri
Muslim Preacher — Egypt

Rapprochement and dialogue of Islamic schools of thought aim at keeping the "Islamic body" alive, coherent, and powerful, so that Muslims can safeguard the Ummah against its enemies. In the Qur'an, Almighty Allah says:

[And make ready for them all you can of [armed] force and of steeds of war that thereby you may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them, whom you know not; Allah knows them.] (Al-Anfal 8:60)

Thus, adherence to Islamic pluralism — with mutual respect shown to different views and thoughts — is the bastion of power. Meanwhile, attempting to impose certain thoughts or views on others is the path to weakness and ruin. Therefore, it is our duty as Muslims to raise the motto of Islamic unity and to observe Almighty Allah's command issued in the following verse:

[And hold fast by the rope [covenant] of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies and He united your hearts, so by His favor you became brethren, and you were on the brink of a pit of fire and He saved you from it; thus does Allah make clear to you His revelations that you may be guided.] (Aal `Imran 3:103)

This was the conclusion reached by Muslim intellectual Muhammad Salim Al-`Awwa, secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, through his booklet entitled Relationship Between Sunnis and Shiites. This booklet was originally a lecture that Dr. Al-`Awwa gave at the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists.


Understanding the History of Dissent

Islam calls all people to know one another. Almighty Allah says:

[O humankind, We have created you of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another.] (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Therefore, it is necessary that Sunnis and Shiites — the largest groups in the Muslim Ummah — know each other. Dr. Al-`Awwa pointed out in quick glimpses the historical circumstances that led to disagreement among Muslims after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

After the death of the Prophet, four of his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) assumed the caliphate. Abu Bakr As-Siddiq was chosen as the first caliph. He was succeeded by `Umar ibn Al-Khattab and then `Uthman ibn `Affan, who was later murdered amid political unrest because of people's disapproval of some of his actions.

Afterward, `Ali ibn Abi Talib was acknowledged as the fourth caliph, yet there was disagreement among people regarding his position. Some refused to recognize him as caliph, and others withdrew their support for him. A third group, however, regarded him as an imam and rightful caliph. Such disagreement still exists in our modern time.

During his caliphate, `Ali ibn Abi Talib had a disagreement with Talhah ibn `Ubayd Allah and Az-Zubayr ibn Al-`Awam He also had a disagreement with Mu`awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. These quarrels sparked controversy among people.  

The armed struggle between `Ali and Mu`awiyah divided the Ummah into three parties:

  1. The first party sided with `Ali throughout and after the struggle. The members of this side were eventually known as the Advocates (Shiites) of `Ali. The name was later reduced to Shiites. This party further broke up into many subdivisions, most of which ceased to exist. Only two groups remained: the Imamiyyah Ithna `Ashriyyah (Ja`fariyyah) and the Zaydiyyah.
  2. The second party came to be known as Al-Khawarij (dissidents). This is how the members of this group were called from the very beginning. However, they ceased to exist; today, no trace of them can be found.
  3. The third party was the group known as Ahl As-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama`ah (mainstream Muslims). This group included the great majority of Muslims who were divided during the war into `Ali's camp and Mu`awiyah's camp. Eventually, when Al-Hasan ibn `Ali resigned the caliphate in favor of Mu`awiyah, both camps merged into one party.

From politics, which was the main reason behind such schism among Muslims, division extended to creed and jurisprudence. Each party had its own creedal concepts and schools of thought.


Points of Dissent

The Mushaf of Fatimah. Dr. Al-`Awwa emphasized that there is a difference between a madhhab (juristic school) and a party. A madhhab refers to a juristic work that deals with the issues in question from the perspective of what is lawful, forbidden, obligatory, or permissible. A party refers to a group of Muslims who endorse a certain school of thought, distinguishing themselves from other Muslims with regard to creedal issues.

Moreover, he stressed the importance of dialogue with Shiites — namely, the Imamiyyah Ithna `Ashriyyah (Ja`fariyyah), to which the Shiites ofIran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and all Gulf Countries belong. Nowadays, it is the political and Jihad-related views of the followers of this group that impact Islam the most.

Dr. Al-`Awwa also indicated that there are common grounds between Sunnis and Shiites, on top of which is the belief in Allah as One God and in Muhammad as His Prophet. There is also the common adherence to the practical rulings of Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage.

In addition, both Sunnis and Shiites fully accept all what was revealed by Almighty Allah. No Sunni or Shiite Muslim is opposed to the fact that all what is contained between the two covers of a copy of the Qur'an (from Surat Al-Fatihah to Surat An-Nas) is the Word of Almighty Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad. There is not the least difference regarding even a letter in the Qur'an.

The claim that Shiites believe that the Qur'an was perverted through omission is based on the book Fasl Al-Khitab Fi Ithbat Tahrif Kitab Rabb Al-Arbab (Final Word on the Proof of Perversion of the Book of the Lord of Lords) by An-Nuri At-Tabrasi. It is also based on false information mentioned in some Shiite books about a book called Mushaf of Fatimah (Fatimah's Copy of the Qur'an). However, this claim is refuted by Sunni and even Shiite scholars.

An example of the Shiite refusal of such claims is the book of Mirza Al-Borujerdi in which he confuted An-Nuri's claims. Al-Borujerdi's book was commended by Hibatullah Ash-Shihristani (a Shiite scholar) in one of his letters to the author. In the letter, Ash-Shihristani described the state of the town of Samarra' following the publication of An-Nuri's book. He said, "I saw it [Samarra'] surge with rage against its newcomer, An-Nuri, over his book the Final Word. Whenever we began a religious session (hawzah), there was clamor against the book, its author, and its publisher, with people tongue-lashing the three."

"If things were in the way the author of "Fasl Al-khitab" misconceived them, then what he wrote would be of no value neither in knowledge acquisition nor practice. Rather, it [the book] is only a recording of weak narrations." Among others who also refuted An-Nuri's claims were Sheikh Al-Mufid and Sheikh Al-Khu'i.

As for the so-called Fatimah's Mushaf, Imam Ja`far As-Sadiq said, "Whatever is included in it is not from the Qur'an. Rather, it is an interpretation of what was revealed through Jibreel [Angel Gabriel] and conveyed by the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him)."

Furthermore, the Shiites indicate that the word mushaf, which generally means a copy of the Qur'an, can also mean the content that lies between the two covers of any book. Besides, the word mushaf is a newly coined word that was not used as a name for the Glorious Qur'an in the past.

Therefore, by calling this book of Fatimah a mushaf, the Shiites do not necessarily mean that its content is the Word of Allah. This conclusion is further confirmed by the fact that Shiites are not seen holding a copy of the Qur'an other than the Glorious Qur'an itself. This so-called Fatimah's Mushaf is not there in the Shiite libraries of religious books. As already mentioned, all Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, believe in the same Qur'an.

Imamate of `Ali. The differences between Sunnis and Shiites include the controversy over the Shiite belief that imamate is a divine position assigned to its holder through a divine text. They believe that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) nominated `Ali ibn Abi Talib and say that the imamate should have been transferred from `Ali to all succeeding imams down to the twelfth imam, Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan Al-`Askari (the Awaited Mahdi according to the Shiite belief).

The Sunnis, on the other hand, dismiss such a belief and say that there is no divine text regarding imamate. They consider imamate a subsidiary issue of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), not an issue related to faith.


The Sunnis also believe that the Mahdi will come before the Last Day, yet they believe that the purpose of his advent is reviving the religion. 

The opinion of Ayatullah Shariatmadari is that people have the right to govern themselves and elect their representatives through ballot. He also believes that it is not permissible for a single person or class to have exclusive possession of rulership. His view is explicitly opposed to the theory of the authority of faqeeh (scholar of fiqh) upheld by Ayatullah Khumeini. Ayatullah Muhammad Mahdi Shams-ud-Din and Ayatullah Muhammad Husayn Muntazeri are also among those who have independent opinions on this issue.

Dr. Al-`Awwa believes that it is the duty of Sunni scholars (particularly those interested in political fiqh) to pursue such independent opinions adopted by Shiite scholars of the Imamiyyah Ithna `Ashriyyah. The Sunni scholars should work on reaching a rapprochement regarding this issue, which sparked the first dissension among Muslims after the death of the Prophet.

The Awaited Mahdi. Part of the disagreement between Sunnis and Shiites is due to the Shiite belief that the Awaited Mahdi is Imam Al-`Askari (the twelfth Shiite imam). The Shiites believe that he will return before the Last Day and spread justice all over the world after the prevalence of injustice.

The Sunnis also believe that the Mahdi will come before the Last Day, yet they believe that the purpose of his advent is reviving the religion (Islam). Also, while Sunnis believe that all people are liable to sin except for Prophets, the Shiites believe that the Mahdi is impeccable.

Tuqyah. Another point of controversy consists in the Imamiyyah Shiites' belief in Tuqyah. Taqiyyah generally means that a Muslim displays a belief other than the real one he entertains in defense of himself against a danger he is incapable of warding off. The Shiites say that the following verse from the Qur'an supports this belief:

[Let not the believers take the unbelievers for friends [or helpers] rather than believers, and whoever does that has no connection with Allah, unless [it be] that you guard yourselves against them, guarding carefully, and Allah makes you cautious of [retribution from] Himself, and to Allah is the eventual coming.(Aal `Imran 3:28)

Affronts to Companions. The Shiites' affronts to the Prophet's Companions represent a point of serious discord between Sunnis and Shiites. Actually, it is hard to reconcile those who say "Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him)" with those  who say "Abu Bakr (may Allah curse him)!"

The Sunnis never insult any Companion; they condemn whoever does so. However, the phenomenon of Shiites' affronts to the Companions diminishes by time. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, affirmed that a trend of refraining from cursing the Companions started to spread in Iran. Also, in the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Ayatullah Khumeini issued a fatwa stating that whoever cursed the Companions would be deemed a disbeliever.

Moreover, Egypt's Grand Mufti Dr. `Ali Jum`ah asserted that a new edition of the 110-volume book Bihar Al-Anwar (Seas of Lights) by Al-Majlisi was printed in Beirut, Lebanon, without Volumes 29 through 33, which included offenses to the Companions.

It's All About Politics

History testifies that politics was the reason behind the first disunity among Muslims. Ironically, the same applies to modern-day dissent between Sunnis and Shiites. The first signs of disunity appeared in 1979 after the outbreak of the Iranian revolution. While this revolution gained the support of many people across the Muslim World, it raised the fears of some rulers.

The Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) made the situation even worse. Although it was not a Sunni-Shiite war, the fight was unjustly interpreted as such. As a result, the Arabs were divided into two parties: one supporting the Arabs against the Iranians and the other viewing the fight as a war of aggression against the Islamic state that triumphed over the Shah.

Afterward, Hizbullah emerged in Lebanon as a Shiite party and led the Islamic resistance, which forced the Zionists out of southern Lebanon in 2000. By the end of the July 2006 War on Lebanon, Hizbullah gained more popularity in the Muslim World. The Arab rulers, however, reacted differently; some Arab rulers described the war as a miscalculated adventure. Also, Iran's efficient management of the dispute over its nuclear program reinforced a more positive image of Shiites.

In conclusion, all these events necessitate the unity of Muslims so that they would be able to protect their interests. Dialogue and rapprochement should be between the people themselves, not the madhhabs, since the madhhabs constitute firmly established juristic and ideological positions that cannot be changed. Therefore, mutual cooperation and acquaintance between the people of those madhhabs is what we mean by dialogue and rapprochement whereby to achieve unity and power at the social, cultural, economic and political levels. 



This book Relationship Between Sunnis and Shiites was written by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-`Awwa and published bySafeer International Publishing in 2006.

Sheikh Abdul-Fattah Maghawriis a Muslim preacher and an imam of a masjid inTanta, Egypt.

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